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Vinita Attorney Josh Lee honored with Freedom of Information Award

Josh was named the winner of the prestigious Marion Opala First Amendment Award

Vinita Attorney Josh Lee, who is the creator and editor of FOIBible.com, has been honored with the prestigious  Marion Opala First Amendment Award by Freedom of Information Oklahoma. This award, named for the late state Supreme Court Justice Marian Opala, recognizes individuals who have promoted education about or protection of the individual rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The award was announced Monday, March 11, 2024, commemorating the beginning of Sunshine Week, which runs from March 10 to 16, 2024, and promotes open government and access to public information.

FOI Oklahoma Executive Director Kurt Gwartney and the organization’s awards committee members said “Lee was the attorney and plaintiff in the seminal case in Oklahoma that declares all police dash cam recordings subject to disclosure under the Oklahoma Open Records Act in the matter of Ward & Lee v. Claremore. Lee dedicated himself to providing the public information about their own rights in seeking open records by creating the website FOIBible.com. The website is a tremendous resource to the public, attorneys and members of the media.”

According to the nomination, “Josh Lee is the attorney that all attorneys in Oklahoma go to for how to pursue Open Records litigation.” The nomination went to call Josh “an inspiration to many attorneys.”

Josh will be recognized this fall at FOI Oklahoma’s First Amendment Congress.

LINK: Sunshine Week: FOI Oklahoma announces 2023-24 award winners

Marion Opala First Amendment Award: Josh D. Lee

FOI Oklahoma Press Release:

Sunshine Week: FOI Oklahoma announces 2023-24 award winners

Oklahoma Attorney General Genter Drummond, the publisher of the McCurtain County Gazette-News, an Oklahoma attorney who created a freedom of information website and a longtime journalist have been named as the recipients of the 2023-24 Freedom of Information Oklahoma’s awards.

FOI Oklahoma also is awarding a Special Commendation to the Oklahoma Supreme Court and Chief Justice M. John Kane IV.

The awards this year are being announced during Sunshine Week, a national collaboration of civic, government, journalism and private organizations and individuals that stresses the importance of open government and open records. FOI Oklahoma joins in supporting this noble cause.

All of those being honored exemplify the goal of open and transparent government in Oklahoma. They will be officially recognized this fall at the First Amendment Congress, planned in October at the University of Central Oklahoma.

“Oklahomans have the right to know how their government operates and spends their tax dollars,” said Brianna Bailey, FOI Oklahoma president. “The FOI Oklahoma Awards recognize those who have shown a commitment to transparency.”

As for those who don’t, FOI Oklahoma also announces its Black Hole Award, given this year to Ryan Walters, Oklahoma state superintendent of public instruction. The award recognizes the individual, agency or organization that has most thwarted the free flow of information.

Here are the award recipients:

Marion Opala First Amendment Award: Josh D. Lee

According to the nomination, “Josh Lee is the attorney that all attorneys in Oklahoma go to for how to pursue Open Records litigation.”

Lee was the attorney and plaintiff in the seminal case in Oklahoma that declares all police dash cam recordings subject to disclosure under the Oklahoma Open Records Act in the matter of Ward & Lee v. Claremore.

Lee dedicated himself to providing the public information about their own rights in seeking open records by creating the website FOIBible.com. The website is a tremendous resource to the public, attorneys and members of the media.

“Mr. Josh Lee’s work deserves recognition as he is an inspiration to many attorneys in fighting the good fight for the right reasons, and making an agency change their practices,” said the nomination.

Ben Blackstock Award: Bruce Willingham

The McCurtain County Gazette-News published a series of stories in early 2023 detailing how the McCurtain County sheriff and county commissioners were conducting illegal meetings, which included threatening to hang Black people and kill journalists. The stories and recording garnered national attention to the plight of open meetings and records in this southeastern Oklahoma county.

“Willingham and his son, Chris, took the ultimate risk in exposing the importance of sunshine when public officials are involved in potential wrongdoing,” the nomination said. “He showed the spirit of Ben Blackstock in performing this public service for his community,” said the nomination.

Sunshine Award: Attorney General Genter Drummond

The Republican attorney general created a public access position in his office to help ensure state and local officials comply with the Open Meetings and Open Records Act. After taking office in 2023, Drummond also worked to clear a backlog of open records requests at the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office. Drummond’s creation of a public access position in his office will have a long-lasting impact on public access to information in Oklahoma. His dedication to open government sets an example for others to follow.

Special Commendation: The Oklahoma Supreme Court and Chief Justice M. John Kane IV

After a request from journalist Tres Savage of NonDoc, the Oklahoma Supreme Court made video recordings of past oral arguments available for the public on the Oklahoma Supreme Court Network website. The decision will give Oklahomans a better understanding about how their court system works and access to arguments in cases that have the potential to affect their legal rights and state government.

Bickham-Hale Service Award: William “Bill” Crum

After years of service to FOI Oklahoma as a dedicated board member and financial supporter, the longtime journalist is retiring. He is stepping down from the FOI OK board to “invite the next generation to help lead the organization.”

“Bill made great use of Oklahoma’s open records and meeting laws throughout his career,” the nomination said. “His contributions to keeping the people of Oklahoma informed through his reporting and his contributions to the FOI Oklahoma board are worthy of recognition.”

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Those are FOI Award recipients who honor all of us with their pursuit of sunshine in open meetings and records. Now for the individual who has spread darkness in his elected position:

Black Hole Award: Ryan Walters, state school superintendent

From seeking to ban books in public schools to banning diversity equity and inclusion programs to his constant vicious “woke” rhetoric, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has done more to damage First Amendment freedoms among educators and others than any other political leader in recent state history.

Teachers and librarians are afraid to speak out in fear of what Walters and the State Department of Education might do to them. Edmond Public Schools has filed a lawsuit against him, the state Board of Education and the state Department of Education in their efforts to ban two best-selling books from the high school libraries; other school districts have voiced support for Edmond schools and the lawsuit.

Ryan Walters has done everything possible to spread his agenda and thwart the free flow of information in education and government. The state education system is in a black hole based on his inept leadership.